“I want to be like you one day” were the words spoken to me by my cousin Kody, a 5th grader, and instantly I had the most intense full-circle moment of my life. Kody and I both grew up in Jamaica, Queens, New York City, where the norm isn’t for Black men to become scientists. Somehow I did and at this moment Kody saw himself in me, something I couldn’t imagine at his age. I’ve always felt the necessity to ensure that I wouldn’t be the last of “people like me” in science. I find this more important than any scientific discoveries I could possibly make. I want my legacy to be about who I helped and inspired, rather than what I did for myself. Moments like these continue to be what motivates me to fight for scientific, educational, and research spaces inclusive to all.
Unlike Kody, I never saw Black scientists as a child. Despite this, my family always told me “I’d be extremely successful”. Their words were the fuel that drove me through foreign academic and cultural waters to new educational heights. How could they have known that to be true? No one in our family had ever achieved what I’ve been fortunate enough to achieve. I had teen parents, both without wealth or established careers, and neither finished high school. Their ancestors were enslaved Black Americans and immigrants from the Caribbean. My father was sent to prison when I was young, as the mass incarceration of Black men in the U.S. erupted in my family. The economic burdens from this caused my mother to relinquish custody of me, leading to my eventual orphanage and temporary placement in the foster care system. I eventually started living with an aunt; although more challenges and poverty continued in her home. She raised me like a son, making her passing in 2019, a devastating loss and a huge emotional burden to carry during graduate school. Despite the difficulties in my life, I’ve always remained oddly curious, studious, and in pursuit of knowledge. I lean on my own unique identity and diverse life experiences each day in the fight to make science a more equitable and inclusive enterprise for students of all backgrounds.
I never knew a career in science was possible until college, but I lacked the support necessary for navigating academia and a research career. When I was transitioning from college, I initially couldn’t obtain a position due to my lack of research experience until the director of the NIH-funded post-bac program at the University of Pennsylvania (PREP), took a chance on me. Opportunities matter, as well as mentors who understand how certain groups of people have been historically disadvantaged and the necessity for giving them a chance. PREP put me on track to a Ph.D. and left me with an unwavering passion for helping other students pursue their academic goals. Through PREP, I attended my first national research conference, where I connected with other historically-excluded scientists and finally felt that I belonged in science.
I want my legacy to be about who I helped and inspired, rather than what I did for myself.
Science must become far more diverse and inclusive than it is now. For example, there is a scarcity of Black faculty worldwide, yet Black students with Black teachers report increased efforts in schooling and educational goals. Lack of diversity and inclusion is discouraging for underrepresented students, reinforces imposter syndrome, and counters creativity and innovation in science. While being Black, working poor, and 1st generation, I am also LGBTQ+ and have mental disabilities, thus understanding the challenges of being underrepresented or historically-excluded, and I am committed to the change needed in science. Changing scientific diversity benefits humanity, partly by ensuring future studies are done with racial and social justice in mind, and I am committed to such a career. For example, in my thesis research, I am examining the function of a novel disease-associated genetic variant specific to people of Black ancestry in order to determine the variant’s true health risk. Black people are often excluded from modern genetic and genomic studies and our health disadvantages are often overlooked. This needs to change.
We must also promote a culture of inclusion in science. Despite the route taken, as there are many ways to achieve this, we need to reject approaches that center changing students to those that change the institution. With each future position I take, I will use it to increase the diversity and inclusion of future scientists. I want future scientists to thrive, be empowered, and grow into leaders that can make a difference in their communities. I owe so much to science, for saving my life, and want to see it continue to grow, both in terms of findings and in the communities uplifted by it. There is much work to be done until everyone feels truly included, but I am deeply committed to seeing us reach that place; one at capacity with healthier, more diverse, and more inclusive scientific ecosystems.